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Argument: There are too few practical reasons to colonize the Moon

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Gregg Easterbrook. "Moon Baseless". Slate. Dec. 8, 2006: "The United States will have a permanent base on the moon by the year 2024, NASA officials said on Monday. What does the space agency hope to discover on the moon? The reason it built the base. [...] Coming under a presidency whose slogan might be 'No Price Too High To Accomplish Nothing,' the idea of a permanent, crewed moon base nevertheless takes the cake for preposterousness. Although, of course, the base could yield a great discovery, its scientific value is likely to be small while its price is extremely high. Worse, moon-base nonsense may for decades divert NASA resources from the agency's legitimate missions, draining funding from real needs in order to construct human history's silliest white elephant. [...] What's it for? Good luck answering that question. There is scientific research to be done on the moon, but this could be accomplished by automatic probes or occasional astronaut visits at a minute fraction of the cost of a permanent, crewed facility. Astronauts at a moon base will spend almost all their time keeping themselves alive and monitoring automated equipment, the latter task doable from an office building in Houston. In deadpan style, the New York Times story on the NASA announcement declared, 'The lunar base is part of a larger effort to develop an international exploration strategy, one that explains why and how humans are returning to the moon and what they plan to do when they get there.' Oh–so we'll build the moon base first, and then try to figure out why we built it. [...] NASA itself can't really offer an answer, though it does offer a free, downloadable 'Why the Moon?' poster. According to the poster, a moon base would 'enable eventual settlement' of Earth's satellite—which might happen someday, but represents an absurd waste of tax money in the current generation. (No one has any interest in settling Antarctica, which is much more amenable to life than the moon and can be reached at far less than 1 percent of the cost.) NASA also says there might be commercial opportunities on the moon. Ha! The agency justified the space station partly with the claim that commercial enterprises would pay hefty fees to use the it for microgravity manufacturing; instead, there's been no revenue-generating activity on the space station, other than a golf ball commercial and the space-tourist fees paid to the Russian space agency. If businesses have no profit use for low-Earth orbit, how would they make money on the moon, with at least double the launch expense? Hilariously, NASA says another purpose of the moon base would be to 'create international lunar heritage sites.' We'll preserve that dust for future generations! And the moon base would be the risk to the 'lunar heritage' in the first place."

Jeff Foust. "Moonbase why". The Space Review. December 11, 2006: "NASA’s effort to explain why humans should return to the Moon is outlined on a web page titled, simply enough, “Why the Moon?” The web page notes that there’s no shortage of possible reasons: “If you asked 100 people why we should return to the moon, you’d probably get 100 answers – or more!” The page later explains how NASA, through its Global Exploration Strategy effort, turned all those potential reasons into six broad themes: human civilization, scientific knowledge, exploration preparation, global partnerships, economic expansion, and public engagement.

That’s a pretty exhaustive list: short of looking for Richard Hoagland’s putative alien ruins or the World War 2 bomber the Weekly World News once claimed to have spotted in a lunar crater, there aren’t too many other reasons that wouldn’t fall into one of the categories above. NASA is presumably hoping that there’s something in that list that would appeal to almost anyone with a passing interest in space, ensuring that a broad coalition will form to support the base’s development in the many years (and federal budget cycles) to come.

The problem is that, at the moment, the explanations supporting the themes are as shallow as the themes are broad. The “Why the Moon?” web site includes a 30-second video for each of the themes, where a NASA official introduces the theme but provides only a superficial explanation (which, of course, is all that can be expected in a 30-second spot.) Moreover, the narration in some of the videos suggests that the particular theme is the reason for going back to the Moon, rather than one of several. The web site also offers a “Why the Moon?” poster (PDF, 2.8 MB) with the same six themes listed, but devoting only a single sentence to each of them.

Are those reasons, and their current explanations, sufficient? A closer look suggests that NASA may have its work cut out for it if the agency tries to sell a lunar base to the American public on those grounds." [read the article to get a full critique of the rationales presented by NASA for going to the Moon.]

Rudy Baum. "NASA's Bad Idea." Chemical Engineering and News. February 5, 2007: "Unfortunately, what no amount of balanced reporting can disguise is that such a mission to the moon is an egregiously bad idea. As Morrissey's sources make clear, it will cost a staggering amount of money (an amount that NASA, so far, has not bothered to calculate), deprive NASA's legitimate scientific missions of funding, and accomplish exactly what the International Space Station has accomplished, which is nothing.

'Nobody is clear on what science the astronauts are going to do on the moon," Robert L. Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, told Morrissey. "To invent the project and then look for the science to justify it is not the way it should be done.'

There is important science to be done in space. Observing our home planet, for example, is one such activity. Unfortunately, neglect of an aging fleet of Earth-orbiting satellites is leading to a significant degradation of our ability to measure changes in Earth's climate. Diverting NASA's attention and resources to establishing a moon base will only exacerbate this problem. In introducing the idea of establishing a base on the moon, President Bush used the inspirational language of exploration and discovery. "The extended human presence on the moon will enable astronauts to develop new technologies and harness the moon's abundant resources to allow manned exploration of more challenging environments," the President said. "The experience and knowledge gained on the moon will serve as a foundation for human missions beyond the moon, beginning with Mars."

The idea that humans have to visit a place and leave footprints there for humanity to claim to have explored it is romantic rubbish that NASA's own robotic missions have thoroughly discredited. Over the past three decades, these missions have expanded human understanding of the solar system immeasurably. The Voyager, Galileo, and Cassini missions to the outer solar system have utterly transformed our view of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The Opportunity and Spirit rovers on Mars have performed beyond their designers' wildest dreams and extended human eyes, hands, and brains to explore the surface of Mars at a level of detail that is unprecedented.

There is an enormous cost to designing and building spacecraft that can transport humans safely to the moon and beyond. Space will never be anything other than a brutally hostile environment. The surface of the moon is outer space with gravity. The surface of Mars is far harsher than Antarctica in the dead of the austral winter. Putting humans in these environments serves no useful purpose whatsoever other than satisfying an atavistic hubris that is no longer affordable."

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